It is tragic when a family breaks up and children are left in the middle between parents – but never more so than when the parents become so bitter towards each other, they are unable to work together for the sake of the children. Relationship breakdowns are rarely neat and are never free of heartache.
Parents suffer when they lose that precious day-to-day experience of living with their children. I have lost count of the number of times a parent has come to see us in tears because they no longer see their child every day or because they perceive the other parent as experiencing more of the joys of parenthood than them. Sadly, the inevitable consequence of living in two households is that even if there is an equal division of time, one parent is bound to miss out on something.
Unfortunately it can be difficult for people to extract their emotions from important decisions regarding their child. Recently I was involved in a case where the parties were so wrapped up in their personal disputes, they forgot to put their children first.
This couple had parted ways when Dad met someone else and moved out of the family home.
The couple had eight-year-old twins who thought the world of both their parents. Both Mum and Dad loved their children dearly, and were more than capable of providing for them. However Mum had never forgiven Dad for leaving, had railed in court about Dad’s inadequacies and had long maintained that his girlfriend was an unsuitable role-model for her children.
When Dad announced that he was marrying that girlfriend, he asked his twins to be bridesmaid and page boy, and the children were over the moon. Then Mum discovered that the wedding was not set for a day on which Dad had contact. She used the opportunity to insist that she should have the twins on Christmas Eve (this being Dad’s year). Dad was distraught. He had been put in the difficult position of having to choose between his wedding and Christmas. He felt that he was being blackmailed; Mum believed that she was being asked to give up more and more time with her children without any recompense or thought for her.
It is easy for parents to lose sight of their long-term objectives if they get bogged down in day-to-day emotion, particularly if they are faced with a situation that they feel they must “win” at all costs.
One of the most common traps parents tend to fall into is to use their children as emotional crutches: a child won’t leave them like their partner has and the temptation is to cling ever tighter to a child to the extent that the other parent is pushed out of the new tighter family unit.
In other cases, problems can arise when parents give in to the temptation to pour their souls out to their children. Why should a child continue to think that an absent parent is perfect, when the other parent knows better? Sadly this poisoning of the children will only hurt them in the long run. A child with torn loyalties to parents can grow up to become scarred and confused. Children are desperate for their parents’ good opinion and will often tell then what they want to hear, which only compounds the problem.
Inevitably matters are complicated yet further when finances are in dispute. Often a parent may be unwittingly tempted to use the children as a weapon, reasoning that if the other parent (usually the father) won’t pay for the family’s upkeep, then why should he have any contact? Contact suddenly becomes a treat that the other parent must earn, rather than the child’s entitlement.
For parents, the temptation with Child Law cases is to turn them into battles, to let loose the torrents of emotion that have been building up. Statements become rants and each party becomes so utterly lost in their own personal hurts, they do not think of the hurts suffered by children who are forced to witness their parents become increasingly bitter shadows of their former selves.
A good Child Law specialist must be able to step outside of this emotional turmoil and give the client that much-needed objective viewpoint. Child Law is heavy on common sense and light on theoretical positions. As a Child Law specialist my role is as much about guiding people to reach the best outcome for their children as it is working through the complex documents that proliferate in any legal battle.
In an average week I will come across examples of all of the scenarios I have mentioned.
Sometimes a solicitor’s role will be to act as a buffer between the parties. Those who instruct a solicitor early on can avoid trauma by ensuring that two hurt people do not lash out at one another, but instead filter their raw emotions through a level-headed third party. Often this can prevent a situation from spiralling out of control.
All too often people will instruct solicitors on financial matters but deal with the children themselves, for “cost reasons”. In my opinion this can be a false economy: if anything is worth spending money on, surely it is your children. Here at Stowe Family Law we have produced a parenting plan to try and cover the day to day practicalities of caring for the children, which ensures that both parents play a substantial role in the lives of their children.
As solicitors we are not simply mouthpieces for our clients, and we resist the temptation to let our clients rant and rave. We filter information and we advise. Most of all we keep a level head so that a client doesn’t live to regret a rash decision made in the heat of the moment. We are our clients’ advocates and representatives: our job is to make sure that they feel safe and protected and that the needs and wants of their children remain a top priority.
As for the warring pair described above: I was in the unenviable position of going to court and telling a judge that these parents could not even agree over two days in a year. Two days which would rank amongst the most exciting and happy in the children’s life.
The judge was scathing to say the least. The matter took several hours to be settled, with both parents under pressure from the court to reach a compromise for their children’s interests. I am pleased to report that the situation was eventually resolved – and I am confident that the twins will enjoy both their father’s wedding and their family’s Christmas.
The best parents are those who can look beyond their own hurt. They manage to put their grievances to one side and accept that the child enjoys spending time with both parents. Children do love their parents – usually in spite of their actions rather than because of them.